The ECAC, following a similar move by its CCHA bretheren, is on the verge of making significant changes to its Division I men’s hockey postseason format that will take effect in time for the 2001-02 season.
Stemming from discussions at the annual offseason meetings for college hockey coaches and officials in Naples, Fla., the league is planning to invite all 12 of its teams to participate in the playoffs, with six moving on to the final rounds in Lake Placid, N.Y.
The move, pending a vote of the member schools’ athletic directors, is a major departure from the current format, which has the Top 5 teams hosting Nos. 6-10 in a best-of-three first-round series, with the winners moving on to Lake Placid, where the two remaining lowest seeds stage a play-in game on a Thursday for the right to play the top seed in the semifinals the next day. The finals have always been held on a Saturday night.
Under the new format, the Top 6 teams would host Nos. 7-12 in a best-of-three first-round series, with the winners advancing to Lake Placid, where the bottom four remaining seeds would participate in play-in games on a Friday, with the winners moving on to face the Top 2 in the semifinals the next day. The finals would then be on a Sunday.
The athletic directors will vote on the change when they meet at Yale on May 16.
“Until the ADs vote, there’s not much I can say, because it could turn out to be moot,” Steve Hagwell, assistant commissioner of the ECAC in charge of men’s hockey operations, said from his office in Centerville, Mass. “It’s hard to sit and guess on how each individual AD is viewing this issue. I’m sure the coaches are meeting with the ADs when they come back from the meetings to see where they stand.
“I can’t say how many will be in favor of it, but I can say that it will take a simple majority to make it pass.”
If it’s any measure, the CCHA finalized a similar move during the meetings in Naples, announcing that it will invite all 12 of its teams to participate in the playoffs, with six advancing to the final rounds in Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
The biggest benefit of a similar move for the ECAC, according to some coaches, is an improved experience for the student athletes.
“Generally speaking, more teams experiencing the playoffs and Lake Placid is positive,” said Dartmouth head coach Bob Gaudet. “It’s nice for the kids to have playoff experience and to know that, even if a particular team goes through a tough stretch during the regular season with injuries or other problems, they still have a chance to make it a really successful season.”
Clarkson coach Mark Morris, whose team was the ECAC regular-season champion last season before being upset by 10th-seeded Vermont in the first round, thinks the move could make for some very interesting moments late in the season — and maybe even greater upsets.
“I think this is a really good thing for the league,” Morris said. “My assistant Ron Fogarty was the one that presented the idea to me. My initial thought was, ‘Boy, that’s everyone included.’ Then I started thinking about how it will keep things interesting and lively, seeing as what happened to us with Vermont.
“Since there is a great deal of parity in our league, it’s going to make for some really interesting matchups. There are no sure things.”
Morris, whose team is a perennial title contender in the ECAC, thinks the potential revenue increase from inviting an extra team to Lake Placid could help the league improve in national standing.
“I think that having the extra team in Lake Placid looks to be a situation where, getting to that point, we can generate more revenue for the league,” Morris said. “And hopefully, we can help our league continue to improve in terms of being very competitive on a national level.”
If the ADs approve the switch on May 16, it wouldn’t be the first time the ECAC has altered its playoff structure.
From 1989-90 until 1996-97, seeds 7-10 staged play-in games to advance to the quarterfinals, which were then held at campus sites; only four teams advanced to the final site (Lake Placid since 1993).
Before 1989-90, only eight teams made the postseason tournament.
“I wasn’t with the league at the time, but I think the context of going from eight to 10 playoff teams was to improve the experience for the athletes,” Hagwell said. “We had a discussion last year of whether 10 was the right number; some people even thought it should be eight. But as far as the experience for the student athletes, I think surely that’s the biggest benefit coming out of it. In my mind, the other factors are secondary.”
While potential detractors could point to a theoretical cheapening of the regular season and a loss of the annual battle for the tenth and final playoff spot, the positives — the possibility of rebounding from a tough stretch during the season; the opportunity for every athlete to experience the playoff atmosphere; and, not to be forgotten, the increased revenue for the league — seem to be winning people over.
“I felt as though it was pretty much a unanimous feeling throughout the room that all coaches were on board,” Morris said. “We understood we were going to do our part to raise revenue and also help the league keep things interesting from a competitive standpoint. Everyone will have a chance.”
David Sherzer is sports editor for the Dartmouth Sports Weekly.